All of us are telling the same stories

That was one of Pearl Cleage’s comments from our March 24 One Playwright symposium; in the midst of a wide-ranging conversation with Ron OJ Parson, broken by performances of scenes from her plays, Pearl was asked about her tendency as an artist to write about the African-American experience, and how that affects her work and her audiences. Although she’s widely known as an writer of African-American books and plays, and although she comes from a personal background that’s intimately connected to the Civil Rights movement, and although her works explore the political and social realities of being black in America, she seemed to shrug off the idea that her stories aren’t accessible to white audiences (or any other kinds of audiences).

These are the stories she tells, she explained, because these are the stories she knows. They’re the stories that play out in the streets outside her window, and in the community she sees around her. And despite the appearance that they’re exclusively African-American stories, it’s the detail and honesty and specificity of her characters and their environment that make them universal stories. Human stories.

“All of us are telling the same stories,” she said – stories about finding a safe place, falling in love, talking to your mother … characters in a play are always specific people, with their own specific skin color, family, background, ambitions, dreams, weaknesses, faults, etc. – but at the heart of every story (every good story, anyway, and certainly all of Pearl’s) there are characters who want something or fear something or believe something that we can all relate to.

This is what attracted me to her works in the first place, and it was wonderful to hear her articulate my personal response to her plays in such a simple way.

It was one of those moments that remind me of the amazing opportunity that we have by spending an entire season with a single playwright – instead of dropping in to visit with Pearl Cleage, we get to take our shoes off, lean back in our chairs, and spend a whole year enjoying her talent and exploring her stories. Because they’re our stories too.

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